Thursday, November 26, 2009

How to represent The Reference Collection - Part Two

I've been playing around with a particular idea for some time now that a university course is, at its core, a reading list with some texts selected by the instructor and some selected by the student (through the exercise of writing an essay). Following this and some other thoughts I had about e-reference materials, I wondered if the library's subject page and/or subject guide page could be managed by bibliographic software, such as Zotero.

There are some glaring problems with this scenario, one being that an index - the primary resource that libraries offer their users - cannot be readily represented and understood as an OpenURL. Unless I am not aware of a workaround, I don't believe there is a way to create a link to my verison of the MLA that can be useful to someone else who may have access to another version of it elsewhere. This is important to this particular mental exercise, because my ultimate goal was to envision a scenario in which an academic library's web pages could effectively be re-used by someone at another institution, albeit with different access rights to the content. (addendum: actually my dream scenario is that a user could add an index to their own personal library in Zotero or whathaveyou) I know - its a crazy goal that's hardly realized with article citations at this point.

So while this train of thought goes off the rails at this point, it did bring me to some further realization.

The software that many libraries use to manage their 'e-resources' can be conceivably be re-purposed. If a librarian hand-selects from a list of indexes, reference sources, and (e)books we tend to call it a subject or research guide. If a professor or librarian creates one for a particular course, its called a 'course page'. And if any library user can create such a page for themselves, its called a "my.library page."

The University of Toronto Libraries is ahead of the curve with cloud computing, which means files and programs live on the Web rather than on our hard drives. Their tool, my.library, provides students, faculty, and staff with personal Web space so they can collect e-journals, citations, Web sites, and other online resources. Users can customize the interface appearance; create folders, headings, and notes; store their search preferences; and receive weekly alerts from publications in their field. The University of Toronto Libraries are also encouraging faculty to use this tool as a way to create online research guides. I imagine the next 2.1 step would be to tap into the “research community” potential, enabling more shared and collaborative features.
  1. Brian S. Mathews, “Looking for What's Next: Is It Time to Start Talking about Library 2.1?,” Journal of Web Librarianship 3, no. 2 (2009): 143,

Eric Lease Morgan developed the mylibrary concept ten years ago and I'm not sure whether UofT's my.library service is based on the original mylibrary code. Despite the richness of its functionality, there aren't many libraries that make use of mylibrary.

I seem to recall Morgan stating his observation that only a minority of library users tend to customize their mylibrary web-experience (I have no idea how many UofT users make use of their mylibrary service). I suspect one reason why there may be low user-uptake to mylibrary is because users aren't particular driven by the need to keep track of more than a couple library indexes, if that. Indeed, one way of interpreting the move to Discovery layers within librarianship is the slow realization that our users are 'article-focused' and not 'index-focused'. While it appears that UofT's mylibrary appears to allow users to add non-indexes and non-ebooks to their accounts, without the ability to re-use or export these citations into a bibliography, its difficult to see UofT's mylibrary used in a capacity other than for generating research guides.

Which brings me to the other trend that runs counter to the mylibrary space: the ubiquitous "learning management systems" such as Blackboard and WebCT on university campuses. These systems are closed-gardens that demand user-privacy for both students and instructors and this expectation has hindered the integration of library resources into these spaces.

OK. So let's recap.

How should we represent "reference works" on a library's web page?

If we use static text for our subject guides (e.g.) we can annotate the description to our heart's content but all link and location maintenance will have to be done by hand, duplicating the work already done to keep the catalogue record up to date. As well, the opportunity to add additional functionality such as sorting by coverage date is passed-up

If we use links to each item's catalogue record, we can take advantage of less duplication of effort for maintenance but users might be frustrated that when a link that they think might take them to the item only takes them to a description of that item or they might get annoyed that they have to find another link within the catalogue record in order to access the item. As well, the library catalogue doesn't lend itself well to selecting and presenting a user-selected collection of items (addendum: especially non-book items like free materials on the web).

While we could create a separate web-database of licensed e-resources, it would have to be built in a way these items could be then be integrated into research guides that can also recommend print and "free" web-resources. Bibliographic software can handle all these resources well with the exception of databases and indexes. MyLibrary software can handle databases and indexes well but may have difficulty with citations and print materials.

I think I'm farther away from clarity than when I started this process. Sigh.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How to represent The Reference Collection online

When does a collection of books become more valuable than when its part of a larger library or works? Are libraries just troves of unprocessed ore? Should we think of libraries in terms of collections of items instead of concentrating on the individual items themselves? [me in 2006]

So I have been thinking about how to represent both the print and the online Reference Collection on a library website and I'm at the point in which I think writing down the threads of my thoughts might be useful - if only for myself. So...

Academic research libraries have REFERENCE COLLECTIONS and these collections were often on the first floor of the library for easy reference and they were never circulated in order to ensure that they would always be available. (In some libraries, every single dictionary and encyclopedia was placed in the reference collection, because these were considered REFERENCE BOOKS - but this is another matter.)

In many library catalogues, books in the Reference Collection can be given a "location" of The Reference Collection - First Floor. It is technically possible to add a similar "location" to e-reference books but there are several drawbacks. First, its technically untrue. Secondly, it doesn't allow items to be part of several (reference) collections/locations. Thirdly, while most library catalogues allow one to search against the limit of a particular location, most library catalogues don't allow one to browse the collection by location.

If ebooks aren't represented in the library catalogue, then ebooks are separated from their physical brethren, and cannot be found for one search of 'books' - either directly through the catalogue or indirectly, through an OpenURL search. One way to retrieve lists of reference books that bring back both print and ebooks is through LCSH's Free-Floating Subject Subdivisions. But then you get every dictionary for a particular subject - and no dictionary for the subjects that are related, or just a little more specific or just a bit broader than what you've asked for.

One way of thinking of the reference collection is a the physical manifestation of a bibliography that was hand-picked by a particular author. A bibliography could have links to both ereference and print reference materials and could be as selective or as expansive as the owner would like it to be. A reference collection could be as simple as a list of saved items in a user's "bookbag." Bibliocommons is the only library catalogue interface that I know that allows users to create collections of both library-owned and other books in one collection. Biblicommons users can also create lists of items.

When I stumble upon an item that I want to 'reference' later, I either save it in either delicious or in zotero. At one time, I used to save things in RefShare. The RefShare link goes to a bibliography dedicated to Library Subject Guides - which can also be considered the "Reference Collection" of the online and print hybrid library.

More later I think.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Search v. Browse v. The Fractal Academic Library Website

In my last post, I told you that I have been trying to wrap my brain about accommodating "search-dominant" users. I'm still trying to figure out how to best serve both 'searchers' and 'browsers' for MPOW's new website in the works.

The University of Michigan has done a lot of work in rethinking and redesigning their library web presence. They have essentially distilled the University of Michigan's Libraries website into one toolbar that reads Search, Browse and Help. Search allows the user to dig right into a search or metasearch while Browse takes the user to select a subject and from that selection a dynamically generated page of different types of resources is returned including a "subject guide" to that subject area if one is available. I really think they are on to something here, although I admit that I think the user would be better served if they were taken to the librarian selected materials of the "subject guide" first.

Rather than go into the reasons why I think this, I am going to ask a rhetorical question instead: where do we want our users to start their research? Now I know that most students start their research with Wikipedia or Google and this is why I'm such a huge fan of LibX, but let's just suppose that if we had our druthers, where would we take them to start their search? And the answer is, I think librarians would want to take them a "subject page."

There are a number of libraries that try to take students down this path right from the library's homepage. The libraries of the University of Alberta list general subjects in their left margin under the heading Browse. Other institutions don't use the word 'browse' but like the University of New Brunswick allows users to find 'recommended resources' via Subject and Course Guides.

I have been working on an idea that every library "subject page" should be re-imagined as the front page of a library dedicated to that subject. The goal would be to become a page that you would imagine a student bookmarking for most of their research needs. Right now, if a physics student bookmarked MPOW's Physics Resources page, they have links to most of the things they might need from the library, but there's not a direct link to our library catalogue. U of M's library webpages are close to this vision because now, every page on their library website has a link the library catalogue among their other many resources..

But there is also a third way which hasn't completely manifested itself but I think might show some promise. At Access 2009, Bess Sadler of the University of Virginia Library, spoke about the work of Blacklight, "a faceted discovery tool." What I find most striking about Blacklight is that allows relevancy ranking to be adjusted by librarian suggestion.

When I first saw Bess' presentation, I became curious to see if this meant that a library could have different versions of Blacklight so that a particular discipline or audience could have different items weighed differently so they would get more appropriate results. So I sent an email to Bess and she kindly replied with this,

What you suggest is not only possible but one of our major use cases. We're already doing it at U of Virginia.

Here's the main catalog instance:

And here is our music portal:

The music portal (music view? music lens? We're still struggling with what to call these) is a view on exactly the same information that's available through our main catalog instance, but it's tailored for music scholars. The facets on the left are slightly different; for example, they contain a musical instrument facet and a composition era facet, two facets which our music users identified as crucial but which might not be especially helpful for non-music users of our collections. We also use a slight different relevancy ranking algorithm for our music portal. On our main portal, we assume that an exact match on the title is likely to be the most relevant item (i.e., we give a lot of extra relevancy weight to titles), but in the music view the first thing you type is more likely to be a performer or composer, so we more even distribute relevancy weight between title, author, performer, and composer fields.

We would eventually like to also create portals for our health sciences community, law, art, engineering, and I suspect that once these catch on we'll get many more requests.

This could be a way to bring the "recommended resources" of our "Browse" webpages to our users who only want to "Search".

Thursday, November 05, 2009

No dominant type for search dominant academic library websites

I'm the chair of my library's Web Team and we are currently in the planning stages of migrating our website off of Lotus Notes and into Drupal. We may change our website significantly when we move over or we may not . It hasn't been decided yet.

There is no search box on the current version of MPOW's website. After failing at finding an updated breakdown of "search-dominant" users v.s. "link dominant users", I distracted myself by looking at other academic library websites to how many have one or more search boxes on their home page.

And what struck me was that I there is no consistency out there on the matter.

Out of the 20 libraries I looked at,
  • 7 had no search box at all
  • 6 had multiple search boxes available through tab browsing
  • 3 had multiple search boxes on the same page
  • 2 had a search box for the catalogue and links to other search options
  • 1 had a multiple search boxes available through a drop down menu
  • 1 had one search box for everything
And then, when I looked at those that offered multiple search options, there was no consistency there, either.

The search options were offered for:
  • journal articles, books, subjects
  • library catalogue, journal articles, course reserves, google scholar, library website
  • library catalogue, this site, e-journals, reserves
  • catalogue, article/databases, e-journals, subject guides
  • catalogue, articles, e-jorunals, e-resources
  • catalogue, articles, eresources, reserves
  • catalogue, journal titles, articles, library website

I am now looking for statistics to back up my pre-conception that most of our users come to the library website to find articles and not books.

This research process is generating more questions than answers.